Monday, December 09, 2013

Real vs. Plastic Christmas Trees

It's that time of year to repeat the great debate over real and artificial Christmas trees. Each side has it advocates (real trees vs. plastic) and as it truly is with most environmental matters, it is difficult to get to the truth. A report from a few year back that did a life cycle analysis (LCA) concluded that real trees are better option, but I'm not so sure that the LCA was done well.

For starters, the LCA was generous about how little work is actually done on a Christmas tree farm. (One of my best friend's growing up would help his dad on their Christmas tree farm so I got the skinny from him.) Trees need to be sheared annually in order to achieve that Christmas tree shape and also to have proper branching to allow for hanging of the ornaments. This means multiple trips into the farm field each year. But the dirty little secret is that trees are often painted. Both of these steps reduce the "greeness" of real trees.

The most significant finding of the LCA however, is transportation plays the largest role in the comparison:
" is now clear from this LCA study that, regardless of the chosen type of tree, the impacts on the environment are negligible compared to other activities, such as car use."
But the kicker is that on page 7, the report assumes that people only travel 5 km to get their tree. This is a very short distance for anyone and a very dubious assumption.

I'm not trying to suggest that artificial trees are a greener option, but only that the issues involved in this (or any other) LCA can be quite complicated. Creating a proper LCA is very challenging. The best ones lay open the assumptions and calculation methods so that other scenarios can be examined and also so that the sensitivity of the various factors can be studied.

So is the Spevacek household a Palace of Plastic with Architectural Artifacts of Artificial trees paying homage to hydrocarbons holed from the Holocene [*] are as you might expect? In fact no, it is not. My wife and I have it both ways. The main tree is real and has always been real. (My parents had an artificial tree when I was growing up and I couldn't stand the thing. I will never get an artificial tree.) We bought a Siberian fir this year - What an incredible aroma! - What an incredible layer of sap on your hands! We also have a few small artificial trees scattered around the house that we have "inherited" over the years. (And by the way, the artificial trees are far older than 6 years, the assumed lifespan in the LCA. We have no plans to retire them anytime soon either.)

So make your own decision and go with what makes you feel happy. Christmas trees choices do not have a major impact on the environment either way, not compared to other choices that we live with for more than just 3 -5 weeks a year.

[*] I know that petroleum is removed from rocks older than the Holocene - I just needed something geologic for the alliteration.

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